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Inside the Brown Bag: THE Transition

By Peg Brown

“I’ve always believed there are moments in our lives which can be defined as a transition between the before and after… BX Wretlind, “Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors”

“Hello? This is Wendy from Memory Manor. This is not an emergency, but…”

We can all cite weeks, months, years or even moments of transition. According to the US Census (Population Reference Bureau, Jan. 2016,) there are approximately 27 million of us who could be receiving calls such as the one that begins with the words above. That number represents approximately 60 percent of the 46 million baby boomers now over 65 who are assisting aging parents in some way—often financially and daily. That role certainly qualifies as a transition with a capital “T”, not only for boomers but those proud members of the greatest generation.

As a veteran of such a TRANSITION, I make some suggestions for this journey. Pack a few essentials: patience, stamina, a sense of humor, and, oh yes, dark green garbage bags. (More about the latter later).

The beginning steps of the journey often sneak up on us…perhaps because we live at some distance, are dealing with issues related to adult children or our own personal crises…or we don’t admit that our parents are missing a few steps. After all, aren’t they still in their 40s?

The journey may begin with a health issue, a fall, or just the failing interest and ability to manage a home and all of the related responsibilities. Whatever tips the scale to signal our role change often takes us by complete surprise or with a reluctant recognition that we’ve been in a state of denial with regard to subtle changes in our parents’ behaviors.

My transition began over 18 years ago with the death of my father at age 75. I had left my home in upstate NY at 17, and never really lived home again. With a distance of 400 miles between us, I did not see the early warning signs that indicated my mother was changing. She, after all, had been the chief family manager, community volunteer, all around go-getter and unwavering support for my teacher and coach father. I did not see Mother begin to change her very active life that eventually resulted in her sitting on the sun porch in her recliner, reading incessantly, and doing very little else. Had it not been for her black lab, I often wonder now if she would have ever left the house. But, for almost a decade, despite warnings from her friends and close family, I only witnessed change when I spent a few weeks each year at home—and then, of course, fearing my nagging, she’d rise to the occasion.

The next step in this transition process was the recognition on my mother’s part that the house was becoming too much to manage. Cleaning out the house, which included a cellar, a walk-up attic and a garage, compounded by the fact that this had been my grandparent’s house since the 1920s, was definitely an experience. (Here’s where the green garbage bags come in—I made the mistake of putting all the “treasures” in clear bags—only to have mother spend time in the garage after I left, rescuing gift wrap and ribbon!)

Together with Martha, her black lab, she moved into an independent living apartment in a community about 18 miles away from her home. Whew, I admit I breathed easier, knowing there were meals provided and staff to check on her. Safe and secure at last! Wrong! Just a few highlights: Mother was reluctant to wear her life alert button, resulting in a fall in her bedroom as she was returning from a nocturnal bathroom visit. Oh, she showed her independent spirit—she reached up, open a drawer in her hard rock maple bureau, and proceeded to pull the entire chest down on top of her. Pinned until she was found at 11 am the next morning (unhurt), when asked where her lifeline button was, she replied that it was in the bathroom, hanging from her walker.

Then there was the car accident. I got a call from my sister one afternoon. “Do you know what YOUR mother did?! She totaled the car.” Again, she was unhurt, but the plot thickens. Apparently Mother was going to a doctor’s appointment, hit the gas and not the brake, and slammed into the medical building. That’s not the end of the story. The next day the wife of the Chief of Police inquired after my mother at my sister’s place of work—seems like mom decided to leave the scene of the accident and was caught by police at a drug store several blocks away. When I asked Mom if she did any damage to the building she replied, “Well, that’s their problem!” She did lose her license, only to pass the driver’s test later that summer. However, it was the end of her Mario Andretti career. Another step in the transition.

Next move—more in-apartment care, assistance with basic hygiene and cleaning. The “official” calls came fairly frequently, informing me of falls, lack of attendance at meals, more challenges with walking, and, oh yes, an all-around grumpy demeanor.

Next step—leave her childhood home and take up residence in an assisted living facility in Rhode Island—a decision I am happy to say she was able to make on her own (with a little nudging!)

The move to Rhode Island began at 5:30 am on a snowy day in December, with a trailer and two cars, all of which needed to be loaded. (I had learned my lesson—plenty of green garbage bags!) My husband was driving the trailer and I had Mom. True to form, it snowed all the way while on the New York Thruway and the Mass Pike. I made a few stops, the last one about one hour outside of Providence. I had a wheelchair in the car so that I could be assured she wouldn’t have any opportunity to fall. At this last stop she wanted to stretch her legs, but I insisted on using the wheel chair. I told her to put her legs out straight as I ran through the snow with the chair—only to hit a ledge. Mother flew out of that wheel chair like a greased pig, waving her hands, claiming she was okay, as she landed, coatless in the snow. When we finished in the bathroom, I said, “Mom, there’s good news.” She responded, “Good news?” “Yes, I have heated seats and you’re going to get a h— of a steam bath over the next hour.”

A sense of humor on the part of both parties is essential. Some more proof.

I got one of those infamous “this is not an emergency, but…” calls while I was in Florida. Mother had somehow flushed the left lens of her glasses down the toilet. (You can’t make this up!) She has no back up pair. Okay, here we go…I’ll just call her former doctor in NY who performed her cataract surgery and have him email or fax her prescription to Dr. Barry Collins. Call NY, “sorry we aren’t at that office today,”—“well, just pull up her record”—“sorry, can’t do that until Wednesday,”—“you must have that on your computer,” “we don’t do things electronically…” (Again, you can’t make this stuff up.)

I call Dr. Collins, he needs to have Mother have an eye exam. I call Dr. Peter Brasch who usually has a one year waiting list. He agrees to see Mom the next day. But, his office doesn’t make glasses anymore. Call Dr. Collins. Because Mom is using a wheel chair, I have to get an ambulance. Ask Dr. Collins if the ambulance comes by after she sees Dr. Brasch, can he take the prescription and get the glasses. Answer: “Yes!” In fact, he went out to the ambulance to fit Mother that day. Call the ambulance service, make arrangements; contact a friend to pick up the finished product. I probably don’t have to add, I missed water aerobics that day. Kudos to both doctors who really helped—and, yes, I did order a second pair—just in case.

The stories about dining services, ethnic food, other “old” residents, bingo, movies and concerts just continue over the next four years, but you get the idea.

My message—appreciate every minute. I never had the chance to have an ongoing everyday relationship with my Mother as an adult and, despite the frustration, exhaustion, worry, life-style adjustments, hospital visits, and rehabilitation stays, they were some of the most important days of my life.

Mom made the final transition on November 17, 2017. At her service, I asked my daughter if she had taken notes!